A Spate of Killings Highlights Resentment, Unrest in China’s Rural Villages

A Spate of Killings Highlights Resentment, Unrest in China’s Rural Villages
Elderly villagers in front of a house in a rural area in Tai'an, China's eastern Shandong province, on Jan. 7, 2023. (Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images)
5/25/2023
Updated:
5/26/2023

A series of violent killings in China earlier this month generated widespread attention on social media and Chinese-language news sites around the world.

The brutal murders, which took place over 11 days, all involved attacks by Chinese peasants on village officials. Making the attacks more remarkable was that public reaction to the killers was generally sympathetic.

The first incident took place on May 1 in Xishe, a village of about 28,000 people in northern China’s province of Shanxi. Thirty-eight-year-old Xu Guoqiang killed the village head, his wife, and son in a brutal afternoon knife attack. Xu was apprehended three days later.

Another afternoon attack took place nine days later in Xili Village, in east China’s Shandong province. A high school English teacher—referred to in reports only by his surname, Jia—stormed the home of Liu Jijie, the village’s head and party boss. Jia killed Liu, his wife, who was also a local official, and their 15-year-old son before committing suicide.

Local police stated in a public notice that “the case is under investigation, [but] it is not convenient to disclose details.”

The series of crimes culminated with a grisly mass murder in the early morning hours of May 11. The attack took place in Majiagang village, in northeast China’s Liaoning province. A 64-year-old butcher—referred to in social media only by his surname, Jin—broke into the homes of the village chief and five relatives, killing them with a butcher knife. The attack left eleven people dead and others injured.  The village chief himself escaped harm because he was not home at the time of the attack.

Pushed to the Limit

Because all three killings targeted local village officials—a sensitive topic in China—there was no official statement on any of the cases. Chinese state media reports relied on details provided on social media by people familiar with the incidents.

However, the cases were remarkable for the amount of public outcry they generated. Online remarks generally sympathized with the killers, excusing them as victims of excessive bullying or unjust behavior by powerful local officials.

According to social media posts, Xu Guoqiang, the killer in the first case, had been framed by the village head and sentenced to two years in prison as a result of disputes over money and village land allocation.

In the second case, which involved Jia, the English teacher, locals alleged that Jia’s daughter had been bullied and sexually assaulted by the son of the village head. As a result of the abuse Jia’s daughter became mentally ill. Although Jia tried to seek justice through legal channels many times, it is alleged that Liu used his position and powerful connections to obstruct it.

The perpetrator of the May 11 knife rampage was a “simple and obedient fellow,” according to reports, and had a history of being bullied. The last straw was an incident involving a land dispute between Jin and a relative, in which the village head disregarded Jin’s rights.

Some online commentators remarked that when peasants—often seen as backward or powerless in China—are emboldened to take the lives of powerful officials and then face death themselves, they must be pushed to the limit.

Public Sympathy

According to state media The Beijing News, 63-year-old Liu Jijie, the village head killed by Jia, had been awarded many honors by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) authorities, titles such as “National Model Worker,” and “Outstanding Village Party Organization Secretary.”
However, online discussions did not echo the official accolades. Among other commentators, a well-known Chinese legal consultant called the killing a tragedy, but said in a blog post that “according to online news, local villagers generally applauded the death of Liu Jijie’s family, believing that they deserved it.”

Liu Dejun (a pseudonym) is a Liaoning resident who lives about 125 miles (200 km) from Majiagang. Liu told The Epoch Times that the local officials who were killed had been in power in their villages for many years. Assured of backing from higher levels of the CCP, they frequently abused their power, Liu said.

“These people are basically the bullies in the village. With support from their supervisors, they can oppress people at lower levels at will. Under this structure, few village chiefs want to be good people. They wantonly exploit and bully local peasants, taking advantage for themselves.”

The Last Straw for an Elderly Farmer

The recent killings renewed discussion of a similar case late last year, in which Sui Guangxi, a villager from Tongfa, in northeast China’s Heilongjiang province, stabbed and killed Sun Dezhi, the retired deputy mayor of the village, before killing himself.

On May 14, a Twitter user shared a video in which Sui’s daughter, sobbing, recounted the events that led to the incident in October 2022.

According to Sui’s daughter, the village committee had allotted a plot of farmland to Sui in 1994. He had been farming the land for 29 years, paying taxes and giving a portion of the farm’s yield to the government as required.

In 2021, the village’s retired deputy mayor suddenly took Sui to court, claiming that he owned the land. He demanded that Sui “return the land” and “compensate him for the contract fee.”

In court, Sui presented the land contract certificate issued to him by village officials. Fellow villagers provided testimony on his behalf, but the judge ruled against him.

Although Sun had constructed a factory and a fishery next to Sui’s farmland, he had never claimed Sui’s land. When a highway-building project was announced, however, he saw the possibility of selling the land for a lucrative profit, Sui’s daughter alleged.

The farmer was heartbroken, complaining in his sleep about the loss of his land, his daughter said.

Sui took the case to court again but his appeal failed. He was detained by police several times for causing an “illegal disturbance” and was publicly mocked by Sun.

Finally, on Oct. 14, as Sun was playing a musical instrument at a local park, Sui rushed towards him with a knife, shouting: “If you don’t let me live, I won’t let you live.” With those words, he stabbed Sun more than 20 times and then killed himself.

Rampant Corruption, Violence in the Countryside

Liu Dejun believes that there is widespread resentment among Chinese peasants. That resentment takes the form of support for those who violently confront corrupt officials.

After the murder-suicide, Sui’s grave was covered by wreaths from the public, as well as a banner reading “Sorrowful tribute to Sui Guangxi, the old hero, for getting rid of an evil for the people.”

China’s villages—there are some 800,000 of the small communities—may not at first glance seem like a hotbed of unrest. However, Shi Shan, a U.S.-based journalist, told The Epoch Times that this month’s killings are far from isolated events.

A Chinese public security official told Shi that he was aware of hundreds of similar cases in his province alone, not to mention the whole of China, but that most of the incidents went unreported.

Liu said that corruption and abuse of power are rampant in China’s rural areas.

Ruthless village cadres often embezzle poverty relief subsidies or compensation for those who have lost homes to demolition.

Embezzling relief funds, making land grabs, or deliberately holding up construction permits are all examples of bullying behavior, Liu said. “Moreover, there is nowhere for these victims to report their sufferings, and there is no place to appeal.”

As a result, for some people, “the countryside is now very dangerous,” Liu added.

‘Tightening Control Over Rural China’

The CCP is paying attention to the unrest in its rural villages. Coincidentally, just days after the brutal May 11 attack, a headline in the South China Morning Post announced: “Beijing tightens control over rural China with training campaign for thousands of village chiefs.”

However, a new rural law enforcement force, set up in January, has only added to the resentment.

The new agents have generated widespread criticism for their questionable tactics, earning the nickname nongguan—literally, rural enforcers, a reference to the heavy-handed urban enforcers known as chengguan.
An equipment procurement list for one of the rural police squads, including items such as stab-proof vests, stun batons, and interrogation equipment, has gone viral online, with one Twitter user asking “Don’t you think these are not something that you need for farming?”
Ben Liang is a contributor to The Epoch Times with a focus on China-related topics.
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